Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Breakdown and breakthrough

CW trauma recovery

Healing can be a messy process. When it comes to matters of mental health, there are points in the journey that can only be messy. Most of us do not get into difficulty on our own. There are reasons that we suffer from depression and anxiety, and those reasons tend to involve extreme stress and traumatic experiences. To recover from that, you need to be in a safer place, and you will have to square up to what happened.

The most common environment for wounding to occur is the domestic one. People are most at risk from violence, abuse, sexual assault and rape from people they know, not from strangers. This is more traumatic to begin with because of the layers of betrayal and broken trust when the people you should have been able to most trust are the ones who harm you. Part of the healing process for many people will involve squaring up to what someone they loved did to them. That is a vicious, painful process to be in.

Abusers encourage their victims to feel responsible for what is happening. This protects the abuser and keeps the victim pliable and cooperative. The mental health damage is massive. It’s further complicated when the victim wants to think the best of their abuser and is easily persuaded to feel that they are to blame so that they can keep believing that their partner, or parent or other person they care about, is actually a good person. To heal from that experience requires re-visiting it and re-framing it and that is a hard process.

While you’re in there, the difference between breakdown and breakthrough can be almost impossible to spot. Some healing is impossible without some breaking down of the old self and the old worldview first. Again, this is a desperately hard thing to go through, and while in the thick of it, there may be no sense that this is a breakthrough process moving you towards healing. Not everyone hits this in the context of having professional support to get through it.

Breaking down always creates the possibility for a breakthrough of some sort. But, that’s not an obligation to heal. Without support, resources, time and care, a breakdown can be just another hellish period of misery. Having the space to transform breakdown into breakthrough is a privilege issue. For the person who is still in the harmful situation, healing isn’t an option.

But, it can be some comfort to know that when you hit a period of breakdown, it might lead to breakthrough. There is every chance its happening because you are able to step away from the past and start re-building. It is not an easy choice to go with this process rather than fighting it, but sometimes, surrendering really pays off.

I will likely be coming back to this in the not too dim and distant future to talk in more detail about how recent breakdown has allowed me to make some specific breakthroughs.


Pessimism and the Brain Weasels

“Give up,” says the brain weasel. “You’re just torturing yourself with false hope. Really everything is shit and it will hurt less if you admit that and stop fighting it.”

Last week I was thinking about how difficult I find it to imagine good outcomes. This morning, I caught this brain weasel in action, and had a good look at it. I’d been working with the idea that not being able to imagine good outcomes might be an out of date coping mechanism. It isn’t. It’s a way I’ve been taught to think to keep me placid and cooperative.

If hope is torturing yourself and nothing can ever possibly be better, why would you leave? Why would you put up a fight, or try to change anything? Why would you expect people to do better?

Giving up hope is not a protective measure, it’s a form of self-abandonment. It is surrender to all that is wrong, and a way of making sure I never even try to fix things or make them better. It is a deep and soul-killing sinkhole into which I might throw myself.

Would it hurt less if I gave up hope? Would it really? Would it hurt less to think the worst of other people, to imagine that things go wrong because I’m not good enough, or deserve it, or because I am unloveable? Is it really the best choice to abandon all other possible explanations in favour of a story that casts everyone in the worst possible light? Take it apart to see how it works, and this approach doesn’t work at all. It takes the fight out of me, when I need to hold my ground. It takes away my scope for anger at times when I need it most. It also undermines other relationships and reduces my scope to be both imaginative and compassionate. But then, historically, undermining other relationships was a good way of keeping me in a bad place.

I would rather live in hope. I would rather think the best of people and have some space to think well of myself. I would rather hang on to the idea of myriad explanations that have nothing to do with how shit I am, in situations where things go wrong. I would rather imagine there is a way forward, a way out. I do not want to be at the mercy of this particularly nasty little brain weasel.

The trouble with brain weasels is that they present as truth, as obvious facts. This one was given to me, I see that now. It was squeezed into my brain to keep me timid and well behaved and biddable and to stop me imagining that I could have nice things. It tells me that surrendering to pain will hurt less than fighting, and that there is no point fighting, and that hope is my enemy. Time to serve an eviction notice on this creature and not allow it any more residential space in my mind. I need to populate my mind with voices that suit me better. A Hope Otter might be a good move.


Trauma and basic needs

It occurred to me last week that trauma can be understood as what happens to us when our most basic needs aren’t met. I’m finding this a helpful re-framing because ‘trauma’ as a word suggests drama, but it might not always register that way. Sleep deprivation is considered traumatic enough to count as torture under international law. One or two bad nights clearly don’t impact traumatically, but when your sleep is consistently undermined over longer time frames, it becomes maddening. A few missed meals aren’t traumatic, necessarily, but starvation certainly is.

In really mundane ways, we can lose our safety. Being shouted at every day. Being threatened and harassed. Not being allowed to rest. We experience damage from trauma not when there’s some abnormal drama that we can understand as exceptional, but when the trauma becomes normal. One loud explosion probably won’t traumatise you. Dealing with it every day was what gave soldiers shell shock. Once trauma becomes normal, the world no longer feels safe and everything is potentially threatening and more dangerous.

It is also fundamentally dehumanising not to have basic needs met. These include basic needs for emotional security and comfort, for shelter and dignity. Emotional abuse – especially in childhood –  can rob a person of their sense of personhood.

Basic needs are essential things that we can’t do without for any length of time. These include our physical needs, our emotional and our social needs. How we experience losing those will vary, but the harm is considerable. In my experience, one of the problems is how easy it is to have genuine need start to seem trivial and not to be fussed over. The need to feel safe becomes being fragile and over-reacting. The need for anything can be minimised and treated as unimportant, adding a gaslighting element to an already problematic situation. When you start to believe that your basic needs don’t matter, that you don’t count in the way ‘real’ people do, you become incredibly vulnerable.

I’ve realised in recent weeks that one of the long term consequences of such experiences, is that I don’t know how to reliably prioritise my basic needs. I don’t know how to feel safe flagging up problems when they happen. I don’t know how or when to ask for help when basic needs aren’t met. I am easily persuaded that my doing without something I needed is a fair solution to other problems. This is going to take some unpicking. To heal, to be safe I have to make sure my basic needs are reliably met, but having internalised abuse and gaslighting, I’ve become part of my own problem. I can change that but it will take work.

The idea that I am fundamentally entitled to have my needs met, to ask that my needs be met and to raise it as an issue when they are not, is a very large thought for me. We should all have this, and I am painfully aware that for many people in the world, getting basic needs met is not a question of learning how to ask. It’s a question of systemic oppression, international abuses of power, war, climate chaos and exploitation.


Heart Lessons

Things I have learned about myself in recent weeks, shared in case it helps someone else.

I like me most when I can love fiercely, when I overcome fear and keep my heart open.

There are a great many difficult things that I can weather, but not being sure if I am loved is unspeakably hard. Trusting people to love me, and to stay heart-open to me is one of the things I find most difficult to do. Deciding to stay heart-open has been a real challenge, but I recognise that I have a choice here and do not have to be ruled by past experiences.

I really struggle with feeling powerless. I need to accept that there’s a great deal I can’t help with. Sometimes I can’t even meaningfully offer comfort. Wanting to ease pain does not translate into being able to. Waiting while other people take their own needful journeys is hard, but waiting and witnessing is the right thing to do. I need to recognise the work that is not mine to do, and not let my own feelings get in the way of people doing their needful things.

Alongside that, I really do need to get better at expressing basic needs and asking for what is most important to me.  I don’t handle this well, and there are triggering issues around it for bonus complexity. I’m going to come back and blog about this in more detail when I’ve got a better handle on the mechanics.

I get excited about intellectual challenges, and if there aren’t enough of those of the right shape and nature, I feel sad and worn. I need to look at this because it’s one of those basic needs issues and I might do a better job around meeting it.

Falling in love with people is part of who I am. It doesn’t happen that often, but it happens. Sometimes those people love me in return, and aren’t afraid to be open and honest about that. They are my soul tribe, my most beloved ones, the people I cannot do without. If I don’t at least communicate with them fairly regularly, I struggle. I do not know who I am without them, and I find myself, my hope, my sense of direction in those closest and most important relationships. These relationships have all kinds of shapes, it’s the emotional intensity that is key for me, and what we share and exchange.

To have had a beloved fall silent for several weeks is really hard. It’s left me not knowing who I am – because I exist in a context. To be me, I need to be in relationship with my soul companions. It’s not a case of being completed, or someone else filling in the gaps in me – it is that first and foremost I exist in my interactions and in what I do, day to day. This absence has taught me a lot, and what I’ve managed to do and hold during it has opened me out in unexpected ways. I find myself doing intuition and belief as never before in my life, and these are surprising changes indeed.

One heart lesson in all of this for me is to put down the pernicious ideas about how we are all supposed to stand alone. I am a tree in a spinny, I stand because others stand with me. Tear one of us down and we are all more vulnerable to the next storm. I need roots that intertwine with other roots. I need to share my soil. I am not complete on my own because I cannot be myself entirely if I am not connecting with and sharing things with other people.


Finding my strength

It has been a testing few weeks, but I have learned some interesting things around the issue of strength. I’ve broken repeatedly. I’ve done a lot of weeping, I’ve watched my digestive system shut down under the pressure, leaving me with no energy and low blood pressure issues. I’m still here. I’ve been overwhelmed with fear, with grief, with despair, and I am still here. The measure of my strength is not my being whole and hale. The measure of my strength is what I can and will do even when I’m broken.

I’ve been broken a lot during my life. I’ve tended to think of myself as weak and fragile for breaking. I’m re-framing that at the moment. I’m seeing my brokenness in terms of my willingness to care and keep my heart open. It’s there in response to a hunger for more from life than I’ve been able to source, as well, and that might be something I can change.

I do not regret being broken. I do not regret the intensity of love that took me to that place. I would not choose to protect myself from the things that hurt me by simply not caring about them. Resilience does not have to been a closed heart or a thicker skin. Resilience can instead mean the scope not to be brought to a halt by having been broken.

There is so much that I love. There are many people that I love. There is so much to keep trying for, keeping hoping for, keep working on. No matter how heartbroken I am. No matter how exhausted. I’ve seen my capacity for hope shatter and I’ve pulled something out of that by force of will, and I’m still here.

I think today is going to be a hard one. I think one way or another, it is going to tear me open. It could define my future life. That scares me, of course. I’d be a fool not to be frightened by that. But, I know I will get through today, not because I am unbreakable, but because I know how to be broken. I know how to weep and howl. I know how not to give up. I also know that there are a lot of people invested in my not giving up, who will help me if I fall.

Tomorrow is never certain. Every day has the potential to be the day that will change everything. It’s just more obvious to me at the moment because I know exactly what’s at stake.


Dealing with fear

I’ve been dealing with fear for years. Here are some things I’ve learned that may be useful. If you want more insights, I’ve written a lot of notes from the journey – search for blogs here about anxiety.

Your fear is not unreasonable. You’ve lived through something, or the threat of something that has taught you to be afraid. If the world seems hostile, dangerous and unkind, this is because you have found it to be so. Your fear is rational. If you are in a dangerous situation, treating your fear like it’s an irrational response will keep you in danger – often an issue in abusive relationships. If you are not in danger, historical fear can make your life hell.

It is really important to notice the fear. If it becomes normal, this may take more effort. Accelerated heart rate, overwhelming feelings of threat, futility, powerlessness and everything going wrong are not normal. If you’re feeling those a lot, or all the time, you are feeling fear.

Risk assess. Sit down, breathe slowly and look at what you’re afraid of. Ask yourself how real the threats are, and try and go through them as slowly and carefully as you can. If you find you are in real danger, seek help. Take it seriously. If the danger is based on past experience, question it. Don’t let it take over. It is reasonable to be afraid if you have been through trauma, but it doesn’t mean you are always in danger.

Breathing slowly and deeply is often a good way to control fear in the body. Moving is good. I find I have to literally run away sometimes to control the flight responses. I get out and walk. If you freeze up with fear, try and coax yourself into some small, gentle movement. Flight, fight and freeze responses are all signs that fear has taken you over.

It is really important to eat well, get exercise, rest and sleep, and to do things that comfort you. Alcohol doesn’t really help. Many of us find herbal interventions like St Johns Wort, chamomile, valerian and lavender to be helpful, and you’re in control of those, which helps. If your body is run down, exhausted or malnourished it has good reasons to be afraid, and that won’t help.

This is really hard stuff to deal with on your own. You are not obliged to deal with it on your own. Fear may tell you no one will help you, or that they will use it as an opportunity to hold power over you. Find the people who also live with anxiety and work with them. It is easier to dismantle this sort of stuff as part of a team. It is easier to think about other people’s experiences than your own. By sharing your experiences, you can help someone else. By supporting each other we can make safe spaces to defend ourselves from fear.

You didn’t get here by yourself. Fear will tell you that people will judge you and think less of you if you need help. This isn’t always true. Some people will do this, but not everyone, and the people worth having in your life are the friends and allies who will not kick you when you are down. Get out as far as you can from situations where people will use your vulnerabilities to hurt you. Find the people you can trust. Even if it’s just some random blogger like me. You aren’t alone, and you can get the fear under control and have some, or all of your life back.


How to change everything

Our thoughts and feelings are malleable. Given  enough time and effort, anyone can change any aspect of how they think and feel. It is my considered opinion that our first responses are most likely to be what we’ve absorbed unconsciously, and that your most authentic self is the person you deliberately choose to be. So, some notes on doing that. This isn’t in depth, it’s just an attempt to lay out the territory.

Firstly you have to notice what you are thinking and feeling. This is easier said than done. Check in with yourself, ask how you feel, pay attention. Try and notice your thoughts and responses. Focus on areas of your life where you aren’t happy about how things go for you.

Secondly, interrogate those responses. Sit down with them, examine them and ask where they come from. Why do you think as you do? Whose voice is that in your head? Where do those emotions come from?

This is also the work that allows us to identify where our cultures have fed us racism, sexism and other prejudices. This is how we find what privilege is telling us, or where we carry ancestral wounds.  This is not easy work.

Changing how you think is fairly easy. We can add new ideas to the mix. We can even break out of long held patterns of thought if we try to. There are tools for this – CBT is relevant here. Changing how we feel tends to be slower, and harder. It’s best to tackle the thinking and let that shift the emotions over time. You can practice thinking differently – write yourself affirmations, or little mantras, or statements of intent. Do some spells. If your thinking isn’t helping you, it can be changed. You can go to a therapist, or a mutual support group or find resources online. You can take control of your thoughts.

When we start acting on these changes, we build feedback loops and after the first few rounds it starts to get easier. It’s a process and it takes time to change yourself.

If you do this work, beware of toxic positivity. Learning to be more loving and patient is not the answer if you are being abused. Gratitude over things that are harming you, is not a terribly good thing. There’s a lot to be said for having people to talk to about what you experience and the changes you want to make. If your circumstances are awful, there is only so much you can do by changing your thinking – really what you need to do is change your circumstances. If you can’t do that – as is often the way with illness, you are allowed to be angry about it. Hold whatever headspace really works for you.

This week, in the midst of falling apart, it became apparent to me that I have some unhealthy ideas around the reasonableness of people punishing me, and how I should respond to being punished. I’m going to need some time to unpick that. But, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen what it does to me, and I’ve seen how I can change. Now, I just have to do the work.


Checking in

Depression will tell you that no one cares. It will tell you that you don’t matter. It may go further and suggest to you that everyone you know would be happier and better off if you disappeared. This kind of thinking can kill people.

It is one of the most crippling things about being depressed – that the very nature of it can make it impossible to seek help. You don’t believe you deserve help. You feel like no one would care, or take you seriously. You may have voices in your head (which probably started as things other people said) about how you make a fuss, over-react, are attention seeking and like to wallow in misery. This stuff is the enemy of speaking up and seeking any kind of care or support.

Check in.  Ask people to send kittens, or otters, or whatever lifts you a bit – it’s an easy way to get some gestures of support without having to be too explicit about how you are feeling. Talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be much, you don’t have to go into detail about what’s going on. Just show up where you can.

Check in, because the odds are good someone does care and would notice. There may even be people who would be hurt and frightened if you suddenly went quiet. And those people might not be ok either, and sometimes the threads holding any of us together are thin and fragile.

I’m not ok right now, but I’m checking in. I thought about not posting, but the previous blog came from a dark place and I do not want anyone to see my absence and worry about what it means. I’m still here. I’m going through some really difficult things. I will get through them.

I think part of what yesterday’s post means is that I’ve broken through into some of the narratives that go on in my head. I’ve recently encountered the idea that we might gaslight ourselves, and I’m going to spend some time considering my own thought patterns in light of that. I’ll be back when I know something.


Seeking redemption

I’ve struggled with self hatred my whole life. There is a lot not to like about me. It’s meant that when I’m public facing I try as hard as I can, as much as I can, to be a good person. To be kind, and helpful and patient, to give more than I ask for. I’ve never yet managed to get this to a level where I feel like I’m good enough. On the inside I’m quite a mean person, judgemental, selfish, attention hungry, envious, resentful and hard to please. I fight it as best I can, but my fundamental nature has nothing much to recommend it. And it is hard, trying to be good. It is so hard when you aren’t those things and they take attention and effort all the time. I have the desire to be a better sort of person, but not the capacity.  Spirituality has given me some tools for presenting more usefully, but not for dealing with the inner issues.

When I’ve touched on this before, there have been kind and generous people who have tried to tell me otherwise. It’s well meant, but it takes me no further forward in dealing with how I feel about myself, how unbearable I find my own shortcomings and uselessness. I have done a lot of work on me, over a lot of years, trying to be a better person, but there are things inherent in my nature that I can’t hack out, and I am exhausted from fighting myself all the time, and I don’t honestly know what to do with this.

The real me, the me who is not a carefully constructed and well written persona, is shit. Attention hungry, fragile, demanding, wanting too much, giving too little. I’m not a good person to get too close to. And so every now and then there are little blow ups, and people I have claimed to love do the sensible things to protect themselves  and move away from me, and I feel sorry for myself and round we go again.

The me I present online is so fraudulent.  It works so long as no one gets too close.  And even writing this I am too aware that it sounds like a bid for sympathy and consolation, and that some people reading it might try to tell me that I am ok. Because some of you are lovely, and kind and willing to see the best in me and not to look through that to the ugliness underneath.

Today I am starting to properly ask what it would take to justify my existence. I will have to do far more than I have done. I would need to do something genuinely heroic, genuinely life changing for others, properly good.  It might be possible to redeem myself in my own eyes, but going after that would also have a price tag and I’m trying to work out whether I can have that, or whether it is too selfish, too self indulgent to make sense. To try something heroic because I want to redeem myself is deeply selfish, and if I do that at someone else’s expense, it’s still not good enough. Even the self-loathing feels self indulgent, something to wallow in, some basis for seeking attention and making excuses. I have no idea how to become a better person.

There is a lot to figure out.


Unconditional Love

I’ve always liked the idea of unconditional love, and I’ve always wanted to offer it. I don’t want to put limits on how I love, and my heart always wants to say ‘no matter what’. The problem with this of course is that if you run into someone who means you ill, then unconditional love is a really dangerous thing. Too much acceptance and forgiveness can put you in danger. It’s the sort of thing that really enables abusive relationships.

I’ve spent a long time looking for the right way to balance this. What I’ve come to at this point might be right for me. It might change over time.

There is how I feel, and there is what I do. Unconditional love in terms of how I feel is a thing I can do, and keep doing. It’s not quite a ‘no matter what’ – there are two people in my history who I truly loved for years and, as a consequence of their actions towards me, no longer love. In both cases it took some pretty serious shit to get me to that point. It is possible to break my heart such that I am no longer able to love in response to a person. I’m still not sure how to place this inside the story I want to tell myself about love.

Then there’s what I do – and I accept that what I do with someone I love will be informed by what they do. It’s not entirely my choice. I can’t do anything with someone who does not want my love, my time or my attention. I can’t enact love in a meaningful way when dealing with someone who really doesn’t want me to do that. I also can’t sustainably manifest love for someone who exhausts me and wears me down. I can love from a distance, and I can do the things in a partial way, but what I do cannot be wholehearted unless there’s a context where that works.

I’m finding this a useful way of looking at what I do, what I offer, and who I am. My heart says yes. My heart says yes when yes is not always a good idea for me. I can stay with that, and honour it, and recognise the limits on what I can do with those feelings, and maybe this will work.